THE OTHER MAN
OUT MARCH 10TH, 2020
It wasn’t necessarily odd for Nina Evelyn Astor de Vries Gardner to be standing on a New York City sidewalk. After all, this was where she lived. Lexington and East Ninety-Second Street. The heart of the Upper East Side
It was odd, however, that she would have stood outside her apartment building for nearly an hour. Clutching a bouquet of red roses. Unmoving while the petals swayed in the whistling winter wind. Stolid as the doormen peering curiously from beyond the old brass-fitted doors.
It was one in the afternoon, but Nina clothes were more appropriate for evening. In fact, they were the same clothes as the night before. An ice-colored silk shirt and A-line skirt from Chloe and her favorite Zanotti heels, three-inches of waterfall-colored leather. Winter whites. Flimsy for the frigid January weather, mitigated only by a heather gray cashmere coat left open despite the wind.
Nina barely noticed. It might have been thirty-three degrees, but she was burning up. Just looking at the red bricks stacked to the sky, at the thick glass-paned windows that never seemed to open, at the made her heart beat faster. Made her skin prickle. Made her eyes water.
She couldn’t understand why.
After all, this was her home.
For a decade, the Upper East Side had been a kingdom below her apartment on the twentieth floor, though one that had never and would never belong to her. That was what happened in the de Vries family when you were the second born grandchild, and a girl to boot. You were stowed safely in your ivory tower, afloat in luxury. Awash in chains of diamonds and gold. Told exactly who to be and where to be it and when.
It had been exactly ten years since Nina had bucked those particular edicts. Until last night. When the entire world seemed to splinter into pieces, then reconstruct itself in a a few hours of passioned-colored pleasure just to shatter all over again.
And now she was here. Back to the same world. The same life. To put it back together.
The problem was, she wasn’t sure she could.
Nina Evelyn Astor de Vries Gardner sighed. It was a mouthful, those names. She’d always hated them. Even the first. Nina was short and almost lazy, considering in some languages, it just meant daughter. As if that was all she was. And yet, fitting. Someone’s granddaughter, someone’s daughter, someone’s cousin—that was all she had ever been.
She wrapped a hand around her left wrist, which only a month before had been circled with bruises. Calvin had a strong grip, and that night, it was locked with bourbon. They had a rule, of course. Never her face. She couldn’t be the face of the family if she looked like a bruised peach. And her grandmother, Celeste de Vries, the venerated head of one of New York’s oldest families, would have roasted Calvin on a spit before she would have allowed something so untoward as “abuse” touch her family’s outwardly pristine legacy.
Now Grandmother was dead. Mother, per usual, was awash in gin. Eric, her cousin and new head of the family, was in jail for a crime he didn’t commit, and his wife was missing somewhere in South Korea.
The de Vrieses were no longer pristine. And deep down, Nina knew the truth: it was all her fault. Complicity was just as bad as the crime. She was the coward who still hadn’t fessed up to her parts in her family’s mess. Instead, she had escaped her own guilt in the arms of a stranger. Broken every vow she had ever made.
Her real name should be Deceit, she thought.
That’s not fair, doll.
Nina started at the voice chiming in the back of her mind. A man’s voice. Lilting, self-assured, mischievous and earnest all at once. Polished, but roughened with a slightly rounded Ls and Rs. The kind of voice she previously heard only from taxi drivers, doormen, workmen. A voice that, despite being totally foreign to her less than twenty-four hours ago, was now so ingrained that it was now acting the part of her conscious. Reminding her not to let anyone say anything bad about her.
Not even her.
Do you believe in love at first sight?
He’d asked her in the early morning hours, when they were so exhausted that the line between asleep and awake was thoroughly blurred. The question had roused her anyway, sultry as a siren’s call. And like a ship, she’d crashed into the rocks.
Not until I met you.
Even now, Nina was hardly surprised she had said it. Love was such a foreign concept. It had been that way her entire life. Her family said the word on occasion. Maybe once every five, ten years, when expected. But she honestly didn’t think they understood what it meant. She wasn’t sure she ever did.
Until last night, baby.
Yes. It had been the truth in that beautiful hotel room, on that plush, soft bed, with his green eyes seeking the depths of her with just a look. Love had poured out of her like everything else. And it was the reason, when he had wondered come morning just why they couldn’t make a real go of it, she’d gone against every instinct she had.
She told him the truth.
Broken his heart and hers.
And run away as fast as she could.
Because Nina knew if he looked at her like that again, she wouldn’t have been able to leave him. Not then. Not ever.
She thought the name silently to herself. Then thought it again. Drew her mouth around its consonants like she was sucking on a piece of candy. And for a moment, Nina allowed herself to conjure his face. A long, straight nose with just a hint of break at the bridge. Two green eyes framed by a sooty fringe of lashes. The lush, full mouth always hooked by a slight smirk. An impossibly square jaw dusted by a five o’clock shadow.
Nina pressed a hand to her aching heart, to one the bruise he had left. One of many she actually wanted. She’d managed to cover most of the spots on her neck and arms with concealer. But that one, bright as the roses she held, safely hidden under her shirt, she’d kept.
Slap me, he’d ordered again under the lush fall of the shower, not for the first time that night. Slap me. Like the dog I am.
He wasn’t a dog, but he certainly turned her into an animal. And so she had slapped him that time, surprised by the surge of power when her hand found his cheek. The sight of the fingerprints on his olive skin was intoxicating, almost as much as the way his body vibrated, like a guitar string that had just been strummed. He loved it so much that she asked him to do the same for her. Just to see what it was like.
Matthew had pressed her against the shower wall, spread her wide as he found her depths again and again, and then, like a vampire, bent to her breast. He sucked the delicate skin between his teeth. And bit.
Do you ever wear red? Matthew had asked her, again and again as he drew a single rose bud up and down the length of Nina’s bare arm, leg, hip, thigh. Would you do it for me?
Pleasure. Pain. It all danced through her, echoes of the first primal ecstasy she had ever experienced in her twenty-nine, almost thirty years. Her fingers pinched at the spot through her shirt, hard enough to expand the bruise. It wasn’t his lips, his teeth, but considering she would never see Matthew Zola again, it would have to do.
I can’t take them with me, Nina had told him when he had ordered the bouquet up to the room. And yet, as she had fled, she had captured them too. The final remnants of her scarlet night.
Nina pressed her face into the roses, the scent taking her back to the room at The Grace Hotel. As scarlet as the letter she should be wearing. Then, with regret she didn’t bother to fight, she set the flowers down on the sidewalk and fished her wedding rings out of her purse. For a moment, she cradled them in her palm, observing the way the afternoon light blinked off the shining facets of the diamonds. So pure and clean. So full of lies. Ten carats on a simple white gold setting, paid out of her own trust, in order to look legitimate, even for a bride of nineteen.
In more than one fit of rage, Calvin had grabbed her ring finger and twisted cruelly. Once she had required a splint.
“Don’t test me, princess,” he would snap before taking a rough handful of her hair. “Otherwise I’ll spill all your secrets. You know I will.”
Had it really been ten years of that?
Could she survive ten more?
Nina slid on the rings.
It was time to go in. To face her life. Her husband. Her...home.
Nina left the flowers on the pavement for someone else to enjoy. After all, she had known from the start she couldn’t keep them. Color like that simply didn’t belong in her life.
“So this is what real money buys.”
Derek Kingston, my chief investigator at the Brooklyn District Attorney's office, and I stared up at the gleaming glass tower parked just a few blocks from the raging bull of Wall Street. A year ago, if you said I’d be on my way to the top of the De Vries Shipping—a company that had been running the industry in the tristate area since the seventeenth century—I’d have told you to have a few more, why don’t you?
And yet, here I was. Matthew Zola. Middle class joe. Former jarhead. Assistant prosecutor with the Brooklyn District Attorney’s office. Somehow doing favors for one of the most powerful men in New York.
“Come on,” I said. “I said we’d be here at noon. It’s five after.”
We started down the steps toward the sunken lobby of the building, and my phone rang in my pocket as we pushed through the revolving doors.
“Hold on,” I said as I it out. It immediately slipped out of my gloved fingers and to the marble floors.
“Here you go, buddy.” Derek handed me the phone. He arched one brow. “Who’s ‘Lady Godiva’?”
I snatched the phone away, frowned at the call currently coming through, and swiped it off. “No one special.”
“Special enough to earn a spot in your phone, though. I don’t know the classics well enough. Why Lady Godiva?”
Lady Godiva was the wife of a medieval nobleman who supposedly agreed to ride through the town naked if he agreed not to overtax the people. The Western World’s first exhibitionist, I guess.”
I rolled my eyes. “This one likes to be watched.”
“Is that what they teach you in law school? Dirty stories about old ladies?”
I ignored Derek’s long stare while we walked the rest of the steps down into the building’s sunken lobby. Finally, he shook his head.
“Man, you get all the fun. Maybe I should start trolling bars for married chicks too.”
“It’s not everything it’s cut out to be,” I said curtly. “Matter of fact, I’m trying to break the habit. There are enough fish in the damn sea without that mess.”
At that, Derek just laughed. “I’ll believe it when I see it. The day you stop cruising for married chicks is the day I become Mayor of New York. Unless…”
I looked up sharply. “Unless what?”
Derek pushed his sunglasses down his nose to eye me up and down. “Did the fisherman get caught?”
Before I could answer, a flash of light caught my eye over his shoulder. Gold. Silk. Flowing. Instead of answering, I shoved Derek to the side and took off after the girl. It was her. I knew it was her.
Two weeks ago, I’d wandered into my friend Jamie’s bar on the Lower East Side, drenched in the rain and pretty sure I was going to end up going home with some random and probably taken women. As he and Derek both loved to taunt me, I did have a, ah, pattern.
Instead, I met her.
Tall, blonde, with looks as classic as the red rose I’d played over her naked body, and a mind as sharp as its thorns, she was a dream incarnate. Nina Astor wasn’t just the perfect woman. She was perfect for me. We spent hours trading quips over drinks and tapas until neither of us could take it any longer.
“And if I told you...if I said it could only be one night?”
What? Inside, I reeled. One night? How could something like this only last for one night? This was already the stuff of legends. Nina and I hadn’t done anything more than kiss, but I knew it would take years, decades even, to penetrate the depths of what we could be together.
One night? She might as well have asked for one second.
But her gaze didn’t waver. She was completely serious.
The tip of her nose had reddened in the cold, and her lips were swollen from our kisses.
“One scarlet night,” I murmured as I swept my thumb over her plump lower lip. “Well, if that’s all I get...I’ll take it.”
My heart plummeted the second I said the words, but I knew they were true.
The word had echoed through my mind the moment I’d slipped inside her, the second she’d squeezed my cock, the instant her flower petal lips touched mine.
But God has a funny sense of humor. That’s all I can say. You spend too many years breaking the ninth commandment, it’s bound to come back to you. Of course I fell for a married woman. Given my track record, that was just pure probability.
Come next morning, Cinderella disappeared into thin air. What did that make me, the prince?
Not fuckin’ likely. People had called me a lot of things in my sad, sorry life. Bastard. Homewrecker. Asshole. Sinner.
Prince Charming definitely wasn’t one of them. Maybe that’s why I kept trying to find the girl even after she told me not to. Unfortunately, neither I nor the extensive tools at my disposal could locate her anywhere. She was nowhere that I or tool at my extensive disposal could find her. Gone. Poof.
“Nina!” I called as I dodged around people filing out of the elevators. The blonde girl slipped in along with the next crowd. “Nina, wait!”
She didn’t respond. But it was her. I knew it was her.
Until it wasn’t. The elevator doors closed, but not before the girl turned, revealing a face that was pretty enough, but which did not belong to the woman who had cast her spell. One corner of her lips tugged upward in a half-smile, and she offered a little wave at me just before the doors shut. Like so many of them, it was her little way of saying she was mine for the taking.
Except like all the others, she wasn’t the one I wanted to take.
“So that’s her name, huh? Nina?”
I swallowed as Derek approached behind me. I hadn’t actually uttered the name to anyone. Not since that night.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I said flatly. “She doesn’t exist.” I jabbed one of the call buttons with more force than necessary. “Now, come on. We have to get our heads in the game.”
“Jesus. Fuckin’. Christ.”
Obediently, I passed my fingers from forehead to chest, then shoulder to shoulder. Spectacles, testacles, wallet, watch, or so they said. Hey, it wasn’t like I never took the lord’s name in vain, but it couldn’t hurt when my investigative partner, Derek Kingston, continued cursing at the newest evidence from the craziest case either of us had ever worked on. I could practically feel my grandmother, Nonna, shaking her fist next to me.
Eric de Vries, Chairman of De Vries Shipping, spread the photos he had brought across my entire desk. I glanced behind me and closed the door to my office before turning back.
“My bodyguard took these when we found them,” he said quietly.
Eric had the pale, numbed look of a man still recovering from a war zone. It was something I was familiar with, having served in a few myself before becoming a prosecutor with the Brooklyn DA’s office.
I had to give it to him, though. It wasn’t Iraq, but the man had been through it over the past six months. He was the heir to one of the wealthiest dynasties in New York and just last year had returned to get married to Jane Lee Lefferts. The only problem was that Jane turned out to be the illegitimate daughter of the de Vries family’s sworn enemy—a fact she hadn’t even known until she was about the walk down the aisle. Jonathan Carson was a verifiable mad men. Demonic as the devil. Slippery as an eel. And as the leading munitions manufacturer in the country, he had half the armed forces in his back pocket, which meant most of the federal agencies too. And so, despite the fact that the de Vrieses had enough evidence for the FBI to lock Carson up and throw away the key, all they had was…me.
Maybe they should have walked away. But that was never an option. And if you saw them together, you’d know it too.
Unfortunately, they were still suffering the consequences of that decision. Apparently I (as an executive assistant DA with the Brooklyn District Attorney) was the last government employee not on the take from John Carson. And Eric and Jane’s last hope in vanquishing this madman.
I might have been an asshole, but I had a soft spot for true romance. Eric might have been an imperious dick, but even he deserved a shot at real happiness. So few of us get it in the end.
Oh, Matthew. You will.
That voice. That breathy, smooth, silky voice, husky with pleasure, full of promise. For a moment, she was here with me again.
It had been nearly two weeks since I’d met Nina Astor in the bar Envy. Since we’d spent half the night talking over wine and tapas—something I honestly never thought I’d do with a woman. I wasn’t the up-all-night type. I was more the love ‘em and leave ‘em type. But the moment I met Nina Astor, I knew I need more than that. Until, of course, she said that’s all I could have.
The next morning, she was gone. And I’d been looking for her ever since.
Of course, when I didn’t have my other job to do.
“Walk us through it again,” Derek said, gesturing at the pictures. “You’re locked up, so Jane goes to Korea to get her mom?” He shook his head. “What the hell was going on?”
“Carson had me framed for securities fraud,” Eric said dryly. “Without bail. Once my lawers were able to get a change of judge, the suit was dropped. But it took almost two weeks.”
“And so he used that time to, what, kidnap your wife?”
“Her mother, actually.” Eric pointed to one of the pictures, where a frail Asian woman I took to be Jane “She was bait. For Jane. And then for me, I guess.”
“So she goes, gets taken hostage, and then he waits for you so he can, what? Hit you up for some shipping deals?”
Eric shook his head. “It’s a little more than that.”
He gestured to the pile of notes he and Jane had brought back from Korea. I’d already looked through them before Derek arrived.
“Carson was building a plant on the border between North and South Korea,” I said. “In conjunction. We’re pretty sure he was brokering a deal to sell nuclear weapons to the North Koreans.”
Derek looked up from pad of notes he was leafing through. “What?”
Eric nodded. “His only problem was that he couldn’t transport them across the border. The South Koreans couldn’t be bought, apparently. DVS has nearly exclusive contracts on all private ports in South Korea. He wanted our ships to get his weapons north.”
I peered at him. “Would you have done it? If…” I gestured down at the photos.
“I would have given him whatever the fuck he wanted to get my wife back,” Eric said softly. “Unfortunately for him, I found her first. Like that.”
All of us turned back to the photographs nearly the edge. These were the worst. Jane lying sedated in a pool of her own blood. Face whitened, eyes starry and glazed. Black hair matted to her face from dried sweat. Alone. Scared. On the edge of death.
The idea that his own flesh and blood mixing with de Vries DNA had proved to be too much for the psychophant. When he had discovered that his daughter was pregnant with Eric’s child, Carson had abandoned his plan of catch and release in favor of something much more gruesome.
“What kind of man takes a woman’s baby right out of her?” Derek wondered.
“The kind who isn’t really a man at all,” Eric replied in a voice like stone. “The kind who’s actually a monster.”
His voice was stone. Sharp as any weapon.
Eric had that look about him, like he would do just about anything to end this madness. I’d seen it before. Men clutching a maimed arm or leg. Screaming “make it stop!” until a medic was able to run a sedative.
“Eric,” I said slowly. “This is...look, I hate to say it. But I think you need to keep trying with the CIA. Maybe not the director right now, but there are still good people over there. And you know we don’t have jurisdiction with any of this.”
“So you’ve said. About ten times. I’m traumatized, Zola, not an idiot.”
His gray—and right now, irritatingly familiar—eyes sharpened like steel. God, Nina’s eyes...they did the same thing. Gray, silver in some lights. Glowed
I blinked. Nearly two weeks later, and this kept happening. I needed to focus. Forget the girl. Get the fuck back to work.
I held up my hands in mock surrender. Okay, I should give the guy a break. Eric de Vries was a kingpin in a city with plenty of illegitimate ones. But I couldn’t help it. There was something about the guy that I liked, but also made me want to knock him off his high horse. We’d known each other for going on five years now, friends of friends of friends. And even though I was helping his family out with this case, I couldn’t help knocking him down here and there in the process.
“We tried your friend with the CIA,” Eric said. “And the FBI. And the NSA. He bought them all. No one gives a shit, Zola. Except you.”
Derek rubbed the back of his head and sighed as he scanned the pictures once more. “Not much for neat crimes, is he?”
“We already knew John Carson liked a spectacle,” I said. “The man literally interrupted Jane and Eric’s wedding in front of a a thousand rich New Yorkers. His grudge against the de Vrieses was all over the Post for weeks.”
“Well, that gives you a motive, doesn’t it?” Derek asked me. “We just need to find a crime here to prosecute.”
“Yeah…” I tapped a finger on my mouth.
“What’re you thinking, Zo?”
“One thing is bothering me. Eric, do you know who actually turned you in for securities fraud? If you were indicted, it shoulder have gone to discovery. Were any witnesses named in the documents?”
Eric shook his head. “No. That’s why it was dropped. There was no documentation, and the single witness’s testimony was both anonymous and without corroboration.” He shook his head. “It shouldn’t have made it to trial to begin with.”
“You don’t have any idea who might have offered testimony, though? Someone close enough to you to actually be a witness?”
Eric opened his mouth to protest, then shut it again. “Well—no.”
“What were you going to say?” I asked.
He looked uneasy, but decided to go with it. “Look, it’s just a feeling. But my cousin’s husband, Calvin Gardner. He’s—well, let’s just say he wasn’t exactly happy when I returned to the family fold. I really don’t know the guy. They got married after I left for law school. But part of me wonders if he wasn’t angling for his wife to take over the company, not me.”
I wrote down the name and looked at Derek, who nodded. Sometimes you got a feeling about these things. Eric’s gut might lead us in the complete wrong direction. Or it might give us exactly what we needed to close this bitch of a case.
“I’ll look into it,” Derek said. He nodded at Eric on his way out. “Mr. de Vries.”
We waited until Derek was gone and the door had closed to speak again. Eric had already picked his coat from the back of the chair, no doubt eager to get back to Jane.
“How is she?” I asked quietly. The Jane de Vries I knew was a vibrant woman with more attitude than a teenage rebel. The ghost in these pictures was her polar opposite.
Eric expelled a labored breath. “She’s…” He shook his head. “She’s as good as can be expected, I suppose.” He glanced toward the door again, then back at me. “But it might be better if you come to the house from now on. Aside from the fact that I really shouldn’t be seen here...I think it would be good for her to hear about your progress for herself.”
I nodded. I really couldn’t promise to do much. After all, Derek was right. For me to be any help at all, I needed to find a crime that John Carson committed within King’s County. And then he needed to be here for Derek and his guys to make the arrest. It was a long shot, if there was anything at all.
But the look in Eric’s eyes—the pure, unadulterated sorrow—kept me from saying as much.
Instead, I reached out a hand. Tentatively, Eric took it, and we shook.
“I’ll do whatever I can,” I promised. “I’ll be in touch.”
For the tenth time in two months, I found myself walking circles around the Upper East Side. I had finished a meeting in midtown interviewing a witness for a trial next month and had my assistant forward my calls to my cell phone for the rest of the afternoon so I could wander. Up Fifth Avenue to the corner
It was early March, so the trees hadn’t quite started blooming yet. The last of winter hung over the city like a chilly dream, including a few heaps of snow from one last blizzard that had rushed through the city a week ago, though small buds handing off the were full of promise of color and light again.
I, just like the rest of New York, was thoroughly tired of winter. Even so, the storms and the snow hadn’t kept me from
It was a dream that did it. Always a dream that woke me up in the morning feeling like a part of me was missing. My chest would ache, my jaw would be tense, my throat tight with her name on my tongue.
It usually started with one part of that night or another. The things that were burned into my memory. A heated gaze. A prolonged conversation. Sometimes even the feel of her body, clenched around mine so tight I’d even cry out in my sleep.
“Do you ever wear red?” I found myself asking, despite the fact that I’d never see her in it, even if she did. “Like this?”
Nina just watched the progress of the bud as it traveled down her side, over one leg, to flirt with the delicate curve of her ankle. She cleared her throat. “Well, no. Not really.”
“Not even lipstick? Maybe your nails?”
“Grandmother always thought it garish. Unfitting for someone like me.”
“Someone like you?” I drew the flower over the hook of her heel.
Nina shrugged. “Someone of my ‘station,’ she would have said.”
“She probably knew you’d attract a trail of lovers. Like the pied piper, except with color instead of song.”
As I trailed the rose back up her other leg, I found myself wondering what Nina would look like with a bright red mouth, puckered with want. Scarlet fingernails digging into my skin. A crimson silk negligee, begging to be torn off.
Christ, I was hard at just the thought.
And yet, despite our frenzy on the street, despite the way Nina was watching the progress of the rose like it was a piece of kindling that might literally burst into flames…I stayed where I was, drifting the soft petals up and down her equally soft skin while I studied her reactions. The way her breath hitched slightly when I found a particularly sensitive spot. The way her lean curves tightened in anticipation of something I wasn’t quite ready to give.
“What do you want, beautiful?” I murmured. “What can I do for you?”
Nina’s eyes brightened as I drew the rose back up her chest. I played it over the line of her bra, feathering it over her breasts. She wasn’t a Coke-bottle pinup, far too slender for that. But I knew without checking that each breast would fit perfectly in the palm of my hand.
“I don’t know if anyone has ever asked me that before.”
I dragged the flower over one nipple, causing it to perk through the silk. Nina squirmed and bit her lip. All right, then. Clearly that was something I needed to do more of.
I leaned over her, enjoying the way she arched slightly in anticipation. The rosebud traveling over her other nipple. She moaned. Just barely.
“I’m asking now,” I said, hovering my lips over hers. I wanted to kiss her. God, I wanted to kiss her. I wanted to feel that give of her body against mine again, see what happened when the fire there was allowed to burn unfettered.
Not yet. Not. Quite. Yet.
“Tell me, sweetheart,” I said, as I placed a soft kiss on her jaw. Then another on the other side. “What do you like?”
Last night it had continued until I’d shouted loud enough in my sleep that my sister, Frankie, had come running from her bedroom. Embarrassed, I’d snapped at her to get the hell out, then tossed and turned until I finally resigned myself to watching the sun rise glimmer over the buildings in Red Hook.
More than once I’d woken in the middle of the night and walked over to one of the bars in Gowanus, or even to my friend Jamie’s joint in Manhattan. Had a few too many drinks. Gone home with one chick or another. Women who were usually blonde. Usually And, like the asshole I was, usually taken.
Even so, I often ended up here.
Because just like all the others, the dream ended the same. Nina, holding the bouquet of roses I’d given her the night before. Looking up to the window where I stood in our hotel room. Raising a delicate hand before disappearing into a big black car. Into the city for good.
And I was left with the feeling I was truly coming to hate. That I needed to find Nina Astor. That she needed me to find her too.
But she was nowhere to be found.
The problem was that I had so little to go on. I knew she was rich. I knew she was more or less local. But other than that? Not a whole lot.
The name, for instance, had to be a fake. I’d combed through New York city and state records until I was blue in the face. Marriage. Divorce. Even, with a heavy heart, death. According to public databases, the only Nina Astors in the general tri-state area died during the Depression. So I’d gone to ground. Interrogated the front desk of the hotel for over an hour before I finally left. Interviewed people on the damn street trying to get the plates off the car she left in.
But like a buster, I ended up on streets like this, hoping to run into her like an asshole. I couldn’t have told you why I thought Nina was from the Upper East Side, but for whatever reason, the prim, polished neighborhood seemed like it fit. She was as classic as the nineteen-century buildings that yawned up Lexington and Park, as clean as their sleek facades, so different from the stained brick and stonework in the Bronx neighborhood where I grew up.
I crossed the street when I reached the Metropolitan Museum.
The funny thing was, when this neighborhood was first built back then, it was as middle class as Belmont was to me. Apartment buildings full of French flats—single-family housing where the upper-level working class of New York’s Gilded Age came to live before they were usurped by the city’s wealthiest.
Nina had told me her family was wealthy, but she didn’t tell me who they were. Astor, though. Nina’s family was never common. That was a name everyone in New York knew. Streets, buildings, subway stops.
Unless, of course that’s where she got it. Grasping for a fake name to offer, she’d taken one in plain site.
It was a hard pill to swallow, thinking the woman who had stripped me bare had lied to my face.
I stared up at a particularly fancy building on a tree-lined street off Madison. It was completely with gargoyles scowling off the corners, a green-tinted roof curling off the top.
I scowled back at it. Was this where she was hiding?
Or was I kidding myself again. Nina probably wasn’t even in New York anymore. She probably never would be again.
Before I could keep walking, my phone rang with my assistant’s ring tone. I flipped on my bluetooth and answered.
“I know who it is. I called you.”
I rolled my eyes. Tiana was the best assistant I’d ever had. She also didn’t put up with my shit, which was a good thing. But she came with a truckload of attitude.
“Ti, what’s up?”
“I just sent a file via the secure server. I would have waited, but it was straight from Ramirez. He said given all the work you’ve been doing on—” she paused before speaking the next word in hushed tones— “Carson…this was a natural extension.”
I frowned and pulled out my phone to look at the file. Nearly two months after Derek and I had met with Eric downtown, I’d made hardly any progress on the Carson case. Unfortunately, Jane and Eric couldn’t trust anyone else due to Carson’s undue influence with the federal government, somehow I became their saving grace. I had a few friends in high places, but it was becoming clear that any help I was going to offer those two would be from me and me alone.
“This is a file on a prostitution ring that the NYPD is tracking. Why wasn’t it sent to human trafficking?” I flipped through a few more pages. “I don’t have time for this shit. Jesus, they don’t even have charges filed. What the hell does this have to do with John Carson?”
“Do you really think I know the answer to that?”
“I’ll let you figure that out.”
I groaned. I didn’t have time for this. I had a case heading to trial next week and another ready to a grand jury. Like just about every other government employee, I was overworked and overtired. I didn’t need this goosechase on top of everything else.
“Before you dig into it, though, I have a Caitlyn Calvert for you?”
I made a face. “Ah, no. Tell her I’m out.”
Unfortunately, no such luck. “That didn’t work this morning either, Zola.”
My scowl turned into a full-on death glare. About a month ago, during one of my late-night escapes into the city, I’d met Caitlyn Calvert. With her honey-brown hair and diamond-laced earrings, she dripped polish and wealth. So close to the other perfectly bred creature I had been seeking. We had gone to a hotel in Chelsea for a night to get what I thought we both needed. For her, it was an escape from her humdrum life of committee meetings. For me, she was just close enough to the woman I actually wanted that I could pretend for a few hours that I’d found her. One night was enough for me, though—I was never into fakes.
Ms. Calvert, however, had other ideas.
“Don’t give me that look—she’s been calling all damn day. You’re taking this call, Zola.”
“How in the hell did you—”
“Because I know,” Tiana said shortly. “I’m putting her through.”
And before I could say another word, the line clicked over.
“Z? Are you there?”
“Caitlyn, I’m at work.”
“Oh, Z, I know. I dialed the number.”
The single initial thing bugged, but she’d been doing it since we met. I pegged it as her weird little way of establishing intimacy, the way rich women did when they couldn’t do it with hugs, like normal people.
I huffed. “I need to get back.”
“I was surprised, that’s all, when you denied my invitation last week,” Caitlyn was saying. “I honestly thought it was too good to be true. Imagine it. You and me? Alone? A whole weekend away from your sad little pile of bricks?”
On the other side of the line, I could hear Caitlyn’s nails clinking against her glass. They were always French tipped, painfully white at the ends, paired with diamond rings so bright they could probably be seen from space.
I frowned. Insulting the house in Brooklyn that I skimped and saved for wasn’t the best way to get on my good side. I didn’t even remember telling her about it, but that didn’t mean a few glasses of wine hadn’t loosened my tongue that night. I should have known better than to get involved with women like Caitlyn. Bored women. Frustrated women.
My best friends told me I had a raging case of FOMO. I’d see a taken lady and my subconscious went into overdrive, convinced something great had been put out of reach—and I just had to get it back.
Me, I wasn’t totally convinced that was the case. Sometimes, sure. But lately…if I had a fear of missing out, it was because I knew I was missing out with someone specific.
Hair the color of sunlight, eyes like silver pools.
“Like I told you,” I said kicked my foot in the direction of a bunch of pigeons, who instantly scattered. “I can’t get away this week. I’m buried in work, and I just don’t think—”
“Lover, please. It’s been eons since our lovely night. Don’t make me beg. It turns me into a dreadful bore.”
I rolled my eyes. I hated the ones who talked like this—like they were characters out of The Philadelphia Story. Katherine Hepburn without the smarts. Cary Grant without the swagger. I wasn’t any more special to Caitlyn than she was to me—but like so many trust funders and trophy wives, she definitely thought she was entitled to an awful lot. Including my company.
“Look, we had some fun, honey, but now we can just leave it at that,” I said bluntly. “I don’t have time for anything more than the one night, and you’re, well, engaged, right? This was never going anywhere.”
There was a long pause. Long enough that I would have wondered if Caitlyn had hung up if it hadn’t been for the sound her her breathing. Good fuckin’ God. These kinds of people really couldn’t take the word no.
“I see,” Caitlyn said finally, although I wondered if she really did. “I—well, I’m not one to beg.”
Aren’t you? After all, hadn’t she been doing just that in a suite downtown maybe three days ago? I had the good sense to keep that to myself. It was hard, let me tell you.
“You’re a class act, Cait,.” I decided to be generous instead. “I hope you and your fiance can work it out. And if not—you’ll find what you need in the end. You deserve it.”
Her voice was suddenly soft, and I felt bad. I forgot sometimes how vulnerable women like her really were. So many of them were neglected, stuck in their posh apartments and townhouses like museum pieces, pretty things for their husbands to look at when they tore themselves away from the stock markets and men’s clubs. Caitlyn, just like the rest of them, were desperate for someone, anyone, to make them feel seen. Loved, even.
But that wasn’t me. I might as well just say it—I was useless to anyone but the one woman I couldn’t seem to find. In the meantime, I was just another asshole, another sinner using them as much as they were using me.
“You take care, Cait.” Maybe one day she’d find a real Prince Charming to rescue her. But that prince wasn’t me.
No sooner had the conversation ended when my phone rang again. I groaned. “Tiana, what now?”
“Oh, no. You did not just ‘what now’ me, Mr. Attitude. I am just doing my job, and you think it’s okay to serve me that kind of mouth?”
I sighed. This fuckin’ day was neverending. “Tiana, I’m sorry. I’ll bring you a whole cheesecake from Junior’s on Monday. Thank you for dealing with my mouth.”
She sniffed. “That’s more like it. I have Leona Parker for you.”
I stood up straighter. That was actually someone I wanted to talk to. “Put her through, please.”
Leona Parker was a classmate from Officer Training School who had turned her time in Special Forces into a thriving career at the CIA. She and I had known each other for fifteen years, and she was one of the few people I would trust with my life. Mostly because I already had. After meeting with Eric, I’d sent her the full file on the de Vrieses with the hopes the fed would finally pay attention to the fuckin’ disaster that was the Carson case.
“Lee,” I answered. “Tell me it’s good news.”
The long sigh told me my request was not going to be granted. “I’m sorry, Zola. I wish I could.”
“Fuck. The director too?”
We had to speak in veiled terms. I worked in a government office whose lines were probably monitored 24-7, even via cell phone. Leona was a legitimate G-man. Or, G-woman, I supposed. She lived her life assuming she was under surveillance. And a conversation about John Carson wasn’t something we wanted tracked back to us. Not immediately, anyway.
“We said that’s how it might go. He’s powerful, Zo. You know that. Lots of ties to lots of people. People in government. People with very deep pockets.”
I understood immediately what she meant. John Carson’s company held about forty percent of the government munitions contracts. The armed forces needed him as much as he needed them.
“Still, though,” I said. “But from Korea—”
“Stalled,” she interrupted.
When they had come home from South Korea in January, Jane and Eric had enough evidence against John Carson for ten indictments. Kidnapping. Conspiracy. But the worst, by far, was a nuclear arms production. It didn’t get worse than that, and here was Leona telling me that the fuckin’ C.I.A. still couldn’t be moved.
“I’m so sorry I don’t have better news for you,” Leona said. “But that’s just the way the cookie crumbles, my friend. You know the director isn’t going to act against the DOJ. This isn’t the first time this has happened. Think about what happened with the waterboarding cases.”
Again, her meaning was clear. The president, in all his glory, was basically wielding the attorney general like a shield for anyone he wanted. Carson had been one of the president’s largest campaign contributors. And now he was reaping the benefits.
I sighed. This was bad news. Maybe not wholly unexpected, but really fuckin’ bad nonetheless.
“Better take it back to Ramirez. He’d got the cojones, so to speak, and he’s supporting your investigation. These days a lot of justice seemed to be happening…where you are.”
I rubbed my forehead viciously. I honestly didn’t know what else to do. It’s all the DA been hearing since the last election. Suddenly it wasn’t just the job of a district or even a state’s attorney to fight the bad guys in our own communities. We were doing the jobs the feds couldn’t—not with corruption infecting the government like a virus. I’d been an ADA for seven years, but these days, it felt more like twenty. Talk about added stakes.
I considered the file Tiana had just sent. What had seemed like yet another task in my overworked life now felt like a final ray of hope.
“Thanks, Lee,” I said. “I’ll, uh, let him know.”
“Sorry, Zola. Say high to your family for me.”
“Sure,” I said. “Tell Greg what’s up.”
And with that, we hung up, and I pulled up the file to start reading on my way to the subway.
A few minutes later, it was obvious why Ramirez had sent this. The NYPD had been running surveillance on a trafficking suspects with ties in Downtown Manhattan, Hunt’s Point, Jamaica Queens, and, yes, Brooklyn. An address located right smack in the middle of “The Hole”—one of the last crime-ridden no-man’s lands on the boundary between Queens and Brooklyn where even law enforcement barely dared to go. Some called it the second “Wild West,” both for its apparent lawlessness and for the fact that it was home to the New York Federation of Black Cowboys. Rumor had it, there were actually fuckin’ horses out there. In New York City.
“Shit,” I muttered as I scanned the names that had been attached to the trafficking. No one new. Small time crooks, people we’d tried to pressure time and time again on a variety of investigations over the years. New York was a big city, but the organized crime scene was relatively small. This felt like old news.
Until I came to a name at the bottom of the list.
Jude Letour was the heir to a D.C.-based import-export empire. His family had deep pockets in Washington, but they hadn’t yet handed the reigns over to their son, who was a bit of a black sheep. Looked like he was doing his own import-export work of the human persuasion. Letour had been spotted coming in and out of the trafficking address in Brooklyn at approximately two in the morning, and the detective on the case had gotten at least three of the lower level henchmen to name him specifically as the head of the trafficking project.
But I was more interested in another element. Jude Letour also happened to be the right hand man to John fucking Carson. If he was doing underground business here in the city, I was pretty damn sure his boss was too.
“I see you, motherfucker,” I muttered as I paged through the notes. It was too late now to call the detective assigned to the case, but first thing Monday morning, I’d get Derek on it.
I turned around back toward Central Park. Instead of going home, it looked like I’d be making another stop, but on the other side of the park. This was the kind of thing I’d have to tell Jane and Eric in person.
It was nearly dark and starting to rain when I emerged from Central Park onto Central Park West. I pulled my favorite fedora low as I wove through the heady mix of buskers, shoppers, tourists, and businesspeople, crowded by the ring of pedicabs and horse-drawn carriage looking for the last few fares of their nights.
Like most native New Yorkers, I was a walker. Two miles a day between my house and the nearest train stop. A couple more to and from the gym. More than that weekly just to enjoy the city of my birth.
The Upper West Side, for instance, was one of those places in the city that was just plain nice. It still had hints of the grit that coated New York—you could never completely escape that anywhere—but it lacked the marks of poverty and neglect that tore at other seams of the city. Seams like Belmont, where I grew up. Or Red Hook, the neighborhood in Brooklyn where I’d barely managed to buy a house before the market blew up.
Here the bottoms of the buildings were washed and white instead of tagged with graffiti and filth. The sidewalks were clean and mostly uncracked. Across the street, the greening trees of early spring waved in the breeze like friends instead of people who wanted to mug you. Above, rain clouds threatened, but right now, it was just a nice place to walk around.
You fucking’ liar.
I shook away my subconscious, cloaked in the voice of my best friend, Jamie Quinn. Over the last few months, I’d developed an alarming recurrence of internal monologue, usually taking the form of someone close. A friend. A sister. Someone who knew me well enough to call out my bullshit.
Go the fuck away, J, I told him mentally.
Not until you admit what you’re really lookin’ for.
Or who, I thought with him. Fine, fine. Fuck the pretty brick buildings. I was walking an extra twenty blocks in a threatening downpour for the same reason I often got off halfway between Brooklyn and Belmont every Sunday just to meander Central Park. The reason why I’d suddenly started visiting every museum on Fifth Avenue more than I went to Mass.
“Can you walk a bit, doll?” I asked Nina as she hurried on a gray cashmere coat. “Might warm us up. I need a bite to eat after all that wine.”
“I—yes, I could eat. Somewhere close, though?” She looked at her feet. “I’m so sorry, but I’m afraid these shoes weren’t made for long treks.”
“Don’t ever apologize for those shoes.”
I was rewarded with another mild blush and a murmur of something like, “I’m glad you like them.” I took Nina’s hand, and for a split second, the cold disappeared as a shock of heat passed through my fingertips. Jesus, Mary, this was some kind of electricity.
Nina started as if she’d felt it too. Her bright eyes found mine, then drifted to my lips. For a moment, I considered kissing her. I’d wanted to for hours at that point, and I was pretty sure she wanted it as well. But she had a skittish quality that reminded me of the stray cats by my house, like if I took a step too soon, she’d bolt.
Instead, I raised her hand to examine it. Her skin was so fair, almost translucent. I could practically see her pulse moving. Slowly, I pressed a kiss over the lace of veins that crisscrossed just below her knuckles.
When I dropped our hands, she had her other one pressed to her shirt, as if to hold her heart in place. I couldn’t blame her. One brief touch, and mine was practically jumping out of my chest.
“You all right there, beautiful?” I asked.
She nodded. “Yes, I—I just thought…”
I cocked my head. “You thought what?”
She blinked, looking a bit embarrassed. “I thought you were going to kiss me.”
I knew it.
I shrugged. “I thought about it. But I figured I’d be a gentleman and wait until you asked.”
At that, amusement danced over her glossy features. “A gentleman from the Bronx,” she murmured.
Her. It was always her. But Nina Astor was a damn mirage, to the point where I wondered if she had been real at all.
Now I was just desperately meandering on foot, hoping to run into the rich, well-bred woman who invaded my thoughts a solid two months after we had spent one single together.
It was time to accept it.
Nina Astor didn’t exist. I was searching for a ghost.
The rain was really starting to rap against the brim of my hat by the time I reached the steps of Jane and Eric’s brownstone. I pressed the buzzer and faced the security camera. It took a few minutes—Eric and Jane had a team set up downstairs to vet any visitors. A few minutes later, the door buzzed open.
The security head nodded at me as I jogged the steps to Eric and Jane’s big apartment on the fourth floor. The two in between were a giant construction mess. Eric, I’d been told, had recently bought out the building and was having it restored to a regular house for the two of them. I sniffed. Some house. It made my little brick place in Red Hook look like a fuckin’ storage shed.
Two minutes later, Eric opened the door to the warm apartment on the fourth floor, clearly just off work himself in the remains of an impeccably tailored suit. He wasn’t flashy the way you’d expect someone worth several billion dollars to be. As far as I knew, he had worked hard to hide the fact for a long time.
I’d heard the stories, of course, of how Eric de Vries had walked away from his birthright. Gone to law school, like me. Started his own firm in Boston, only to be lured back to New York to save his family’s fortune. But I could have saved the guy a decade and told him he wasn’t ever going to be anything other than the head of a powerful family. Money has a funny way of weaving its way into people’s DNA. You can’t hide that kind of breeding.
“Hey,” I said as I followed Eric inside. “I was on my way uptown and thought I would drop in. I, uh, have some news.”
“That so?” Eric shook my hand. “Need a glass of wine to tell it?”
“It is after five o’clock.” I nodded toward the couch, where Jane was sitting. “Hey, Jane.”
Eric went to get us all drinks in the kitchen without another word. I’d been here a few times at this point, to the point where my unannounced visit wasn’t much of a surprise anymore. For the same reason that Leona and I usually spoke in veiled terms, I made these kinds of updates in person.
Jane got up from the couch greet me after I took off my trenchcoat and hung it with my hat on the coatrack.
“Hey, you,” she said. “Been a minute.”
“You’re looking good,” I told her honestly.
And it was true. When Eric had brought Jane home from Korea, she’d been gaunt and traumatized, much too thin, and ghostly. Now the color in her cheeks had returned, along with her trademark cat-eyed glasses and penchant for needling her husband. I didn’t linger as she gave me a kiss on the cheek—as much fun as it was to rile up Eric, I knew all too well how protective he could be over his wife’s affections. After all, it was only last Thanksgiving that he had tried to clock me over the turkey.
That, thankfully, seemed to be firmly in the past as Eric joined Jane and me by the flickering fireplace, delivering us both red wine while he stayed with vodka.
“Damn.” I wasn’t well-versed in French wines, generally preferring Italian, but I knew Eric only bought the best. “This is why I really come here. What is this, a Margaux?”
Eric nodded, though Jane shrugged.
I chuckled. “You don’t know?”
She just shrugged congenially. “This one has the fancy tastes. I’d probably just bring home Three-Buck Chuck every night, but Eric thinks he’s allergic to it.”
I grimaced at the idea. I didn’t have the cash to drink one of the best wines in the world like table wine, but I was with Eric on that one. I couldn’t lie. As someone with a taste for well-tailored menswear myself (though mine I had to purchase secondhand), I appreciated the life people like the de Vrieses led. The perfectly tailored suits. The spacious, yet comfortable living situation. The best food. The best wine. The best of everything.
“I just don’t see the point of drinking garbage,” Eric was saying while he played with his wife’s dark hair.
“Why, my dear Rockefeller,” Jane teased. “What a charmingly privileged thing to say. Leave the swill to the slums, is that right?”
In a split second, Eric’s expression went from casually opaque to completely transparent. I’d seen it before. It was their ongoing act–Jane would say things that would purposefully get under Eric’s skin until his implacable facade broke. And when it did, she obviously relished the consequences.
The hand in Jane’s hair tightened, and the atmosphere in the room crackled. Eric leaned in and growled something in his wife’s ear that made Jane turn a just few shades lighter than the crimson wine in her glass. He looked just as fierce as ever, but it was clear by her expression that whatever threat he’d just made was something Jane was more than happy to receive.
I shifted in my seat. Just the change in their body language had me thinking about Nina. Fuck, maybe I’d blown Caitlyn off too early. I could call her now. Meet up at a hotel on the East Side. Anything to scratch that goddamn itch.
And yet, I also knew that whatever charge had just passed between them wasn’t just about sex. I knew it because for one night, I had felt it too. Something happens when two souls join the same way bodies do. Nina Astor and I had given everything we had to each other that night. For the first and only time in my life, I’d been completely naked with a woman, body and soul. Plundered her body with the hunger of a pirate, and allowed her to do the same to me.
I’d been splayed open.
Do you believe in love at first sight?
I still couldn’t believe I’d asked her that. It had just fallen out in the early morning hours, as instinctual as the way my fingers stroked her skin. But even more incredible had been her reply:
Not until I met you.
There was no going back after that. Unfortunately, it also meant nothing else could even come close to replacing it.
I shook my head. I’d already been down that rabbit hole my allotted five times today. Right now, I needed to focus on the two very real people in this room who needed my help.
“So, what’s up?” Eric pulled me out of my daydream. “What’s the news?”
And into something worse. “Well, I’m afraid it’s not very good. I got a call from my friend at the CIA. They, um, are declining to prosecute. They won’t be sending anything to the DOJ.”
“What?” Eric exploded off the couch, nearly tossing Jane to the floor. She barely saved her wine glass, but looked too crestfallen to reply.
I felt for them. This maniac had been after them for months. He was a psycho, pure and simple, and had too many people.
“What the fuck happened?” Eric demanded. “We practically gift-wrapped that indictment for them!”
I waited while he continued to spout. Jane’s normally mischievous expression had completely shuttered while she toyed with her wedding rings, still a bit loose around her fingers.
“Look,” I said finally. “You know as well as I do that the current administration is basically in Carson’s pockets. We’ve talked about this. A pardon was always a possibility. Now it’s just…a reality, I guess.”
“We should take it to the press,” Eric said. “I’ll give an interview to the Times. Try his ass in the court of public opinion. Isn’t that how they got that campaign manager indicted in 2017? Where’s the fucking accountability?”
“I’d wait on that for a minute,” I said. “There’s another way to go. One that won’t give away your hand.”
“Like murder?” Eric muttered. Jane elbowed him in the ribs.
I was kind kind of amused. To be honest, I couldn’t really blame Eric for the joke. If it had been the love of my life targeted in this way (Nina’s face again appeared in my back of my mind), I’d have probably taken my Beretta to the streets a long time ago.
“Kidding,” Eric said with a long drink of his vodka. “Sort of.”
“Look, maybe the feds aren’t prosecuting, but the Brooklyn DA sure as hell is,” I continued.
I proceeded to outline—vaguely—how my boss intended to pick off the people surrounding John Carson, mafia-style. The Brooklyn DA’s Office had been going after New York’s worst gangsters for over a hundred years. We had a process. Maybe Carson could buy off the feds, but he didn’t have any leverage with my boss or me. We just needed the right crime. The right confession. The right jurisdiction.
I didn’t mention the case that had come across my desk this morning. There would be time for that, and I wasn’t really supposed to be discussing the details with them anyway. I just wanted to give them a little peace of mind when I could. They deserved at least that much.
Eric, though, had his own ideas. Stage a secret meeting. Lure the whale into the net. Jane, however, wasn’t having it.
“No,” she snapped. “He’ll know what you’re doing. He’s thought one step ahead of you this whole time. Eric, he will know.”
Eric just stared at her, clearly getting his argument together. I wasn’t sure where I stood.
On the one hand, I was plenty interested in investigating Janus, a secret society headed by Carson and to which Eric also belonged. From the outside, the society sounded an awful lot like the mafia to me. If Eric wanted to give me the goods, I wouldn’t argue with that, especially since getting a list of members wouldn’t just help the case—it would probably make my career.
But on the other hand, I understood Jane’s trepidation. It wasn’t the safest course when both she and Eric of them had already been abducted by these assholes.
Before he could answer, however, the door rang with a loud buzz.
“We’re not done,” Eric said on his way to the door. He pressed the call button. “Yeah?”
“Mrs. Gardner is here.”
“Oh? Sure, send her up.” Eric unlocked the door. “This should only take a minute, Zola. It’s just my cousin. She’s been a huge help with all of this shit.”
I shrugged and took another drink of wine. “Fine by me.” I wasn’t in a hurry.
Heels soon clicked up the marble stairs. A second later, the door swung open, and a bluster of white, blonde, and sparkle, wrapped in a familiar gray coat, whirled into the apartment with the force of the rainstorm outside.
“Hello, hello, I’m so sorry to interrupt your evening,” she said as she shook out her umbrella and set it by the door. “I’m a bit desperate, and I needed to see Jane immediately. I—oh!”
When she turned around, I could barely hold my wineglass. I couldn’t fuckin’ speak at all.
It was her.
The woman I’d been seeking for months.
The elegant work of art I’d been dreaming of every night since January.
She stood by the door, her large gray eyes locked with mine. She was a statue. I was a statue. Only the bit of pink and the tip of her nose and the crest of her cheekbones betrayed the fact that she was human. And that she was as surprised or more to see me too.
The word was so faint, I could barely hear it. But in hearing my name from those lips at last, I managed to find my own voice as well.